Monday, February 5, 2018

Mexico 0-3 to start Caribbean Series, slim chance for semis

The 2018 Caribbean Series has gotten off to a thud for the Mexican Pacific League champion Culiacan Tomateros, who added no fewer than 15 reinforcements from other LMP teams after the conclusion of the playoffs to give manager Benji Gil a veritable all-star team to take to Guadalajara (while a number of miffed players were left behind).  Regardless of having a talent-loaded squad, the Mexicans lost their first three games at Estadio Charros to place themselves in must-win mode for their final round-robin contest.

Culiacan lost Friday's opener to defending champion Caguas of Puerto Rico, 7-4, in front of 16,500 fans.  The Tomateros held a 4-3 lead after four innings, but the Criollos tied the game in the top of the fifth and touched reliever Casey Coleman for three runs in the eighth to achieve their margin of victory.  Coleman (part of the only three-generation pitching family in MLB history) allowed three hits, including an RBI ground-rule double to David Vidal that broke the deadlock.  Nick Struck, who relieved Coleman with one out, let another run on on a wild pitch to Dayron Verona before giving up a run-scoring trip to Verona to bring the score to 7-4.  Sebastian Elizalde singled twice to drive in two runs and score another for Mexico, Jesse Castillo and Gabriel Gutierrez combined for four hits and Ronnier Mustelier scored twice.  Anthony Garcia paced the winners with three hits, including two doubles, two RBIs and a run scored.  Edgar Gonzalez (4.2IP/4R/8H) had a rocky start for Culiacan, for whom Coleman took the loss.

Saturday night's game went no better for Mexico in a 5-4 loss to Cuba's Granma Alazanes after frittering away another late lead.  This time, it was a 4-2 advantage going into the bottom of the seventh that was lost after being built on a three-run fourth frame that featured run-scoring singles by Rico Noel and Elizalde.  Culiacan reliever Aldo Montes gave up a one-out solo homer to Raul Gonzalez to make it a one-run game and a subsequent sacrifice fly by Frederich Cepeda tied the contest at 4-4.  It was left to Gonzalez to drive in the eventual game-winner in the bottom of the eighth on a sacrifice fly off the snake-bitten Coleman, who was tagged with his second loss in as many nights.  Justin Greene, Walter Ibarra and Noel each had two of eleven Mexican hits while Noel picked up two ribbies.  Culiacan starter Danny Rodriguez lasted just 37 pitches before being pulled with two out in the third, letting in two runs on as many hits and one walk.  Alain Sanchez got the win for Cuba with five innings of one-run relief.

Skipper Gil's seat got even hotter after Mexico lost their third straight game at home Sunday, 6-4, to Venezuelan champion Anzoategui.  While Culiacan never led in this one, the tilt was tied at 2-2 until the Caribes pushed a run across in the top of the sixth on Willians Astudillo's solo homer off reliever Miguel Pena, a former Red Sox farmhand who went 11-2 for Mexican League champion Tijuana last summer.  One inning later, Niuman Romero's line-drive single off Pena brought in Luis Domoromo to give the Venezuelans a two-run lead.  The Caribes scored two more in the top of the ninth to go up 6-2 before Chris Roberson's pinch homer with Joey Meneses on base closed the gap to a final two runs.  Meneses and Jesse Castillo each had two of the Tomateros' eight hits as Venezuela starter Nestor Molina (last year's LMB Pitcher of the Year with Veracruz) went 5.1 innings for the win, allowing two earned runs on five hits.  Rolando Valdez lasted four innings and 74 pitches for Mexico, letting in a part of runs, while Pena absorbed the loss after giving up those two runs.  Casey Coleman did not pitch.

The 0-3 Mexicans will get one more crack at a win Tuesday when they play Dominican  kingpins Cibaenas, managed by former LMB helmsman Lino Rivera, in the nightcap after a bye on Monday.  Cuba is 2-0 with games ahead Monday against the Dominicans and Tuesday versus Puerto Rico.  Venezuela is 2-1 going into Monday's clash with Puerto Rico, while both the Dominicans and Boricuans are 1-1.  While Culiacan is up against the wall, it should be remembered that Caguas was similarly 0-3 at this time last year before sneaking into the semis with a fourth-game win, then won the semi and final games for the championship.

Venezuela's Rene Reyes leads all batters appearing in three games with a .583 average after going 7-for-12.  Teammate Balbino Fuenmayor, who got off to a great start last summer for Veracruz in the MXL before cooling off in the second half, is right behind with a .500 average.  Fuenmayor's two homers are tied with yet another Anzoategui performer, Rafael Ortega, while his six RBIs top that list.  Six pitchers have one win apiece but only one, Dominican ex-MLBer Francisley Bueno, allowed no runs as Bueno blanked Caguas for five innings in Sunday's 6-3 Cibaenas win over the Puerto Rican champs.  Cuban veteran Lazaro Blanco has five strikeouts, one more than Mexico's Valdez and Venezuela's Molina.

One notable change from past Caribbean Series is that the games are being split into day-night doubleheader, with fans attending the afternoon games required to exit the ballpark before paying their way in for the evening contests.  Results thus far are mixed but incomplete.  With Mexico playing the nightcap throughout the round-robin stage, the afternoon games drew around 7,000 for the first two days with no attendance listed for Sunday's Day Three.  Culiacan's Friday opener against Caguas drew a sellout crowd of 16,500 at Estadio Charros, but no figures have been released for either Saturday's or Sunday's nightcaps.  The day-night format will continue through Wednesday's semifinals, with the title game slated for 9PM Eastern on Thursday night.


Diablos lose 2018 LMB All-Star Game in wake of MLB series shift
(Still) under construction: Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu
The offseason has not been kind to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.  In addition to the so-called "Rookiegate" scandal in which the team is being investigated over five Quintana Roo Tigres prospects being mysteriously transferred to Mexico City (two of whom were sold to the Texas Rangers for a combined $2.7 million), continued delays in the construction of the Diablos' new ballpark has led to the Mexican League shifting its 2018 All-Star Game from the Nation's Capital to Parque Kukulkan in Merida, home of the Yucatan Leones.

The All-Star Game was originally scheduled to take place at 13,000-seat Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu on June 29, a date that falls between the two 57-game seasons with playoffs the LMB will be playing this year.  However, at an Assembly of Presidents meeting held last week in Mexico City, it was determined that the new ballpark (which had originally been slated to open in 2017) couldn't be guaranteed ready to host the All-Star Game.  Instead, the Presidents voted to move the contest to Merida and its 16,000-seater.  Parque Kukulkan was opened in 1982.  Since then, it has been the site of All-Star Games in 1982, 1992, 1998 and 2015 (the latter in front of 12,600 spectators).  The facility underwent $30 million in renovations prior to the 2016 season.

Losing the All-Star Game marks the second time this winter that the Diablos Rojos have lost a chance to host a major event.  The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres had previously arranged to play a 2018 three-game regular season series in Mexico City, contingent on the new ballpark being ready.  However, structural damage found in late 2017 led to all sorts of timelines being pushed back months while those damages were to be addressed.  That resulted in the Dodgers and Padres moving their series to Estadio Monterrey, home of the Sultanes, in early May.  Although the Monterrey ballpark's current renovation will drop its seating capacity from 27,000 to 22,000, it remains Mexico's largest baseball facility and should be a showcase for new Sultanes owners Grupo Multimedios, who will host the MLB set.  Monterrey led all minor league teams in attendance last summer with an average of 11,575 per game (although paid attendance at the liberally-papered house was believed by many columnists to be a fair amount less than the announced figures).

Meanwhile, back in Mexico City, the Diablos are resigning themselves to playing another season at tiny Estadio Fray Nano.  The 5,200-seat facility, which is the smallest in the MXL, was only meant to be a stopgap after the Red Devils vacated the larger (but far less baseball-friendly) Foro Sol prior to the 2015 season.  Instead, they'll be playing their fourth season on the heels of a 2017 campaign in which one of the Liga's flagship franchises finished out of the playoffs while drawing just 2,503 fans a night, 14th in the 16-team circuit.

One bright spot from last week's meeting is that the upcoming two-season LMB calendar will be named after owner Harp, only the second time the league has dedicated a season to a person.  The other was the late Mexico City Tigres founder and future LMB president Alejo Peralta.  Puro Beisbol's perspicacious columnist/editor Fernando Ballesteros noted last week that while there are similarities between the two men, Peralta's vision and effort always included Mexican baseball as a whole while Harp has kept his own vision and effort within his two teams, the Diablos and Oaxaca Guerreros.


Union Laguna changes name from Vaqueros to Algodoneros

While it's been a tough time for the aforementioned Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City, at least he has his billions in the bank and an upcoming Mexican League season named after him.  Then you have baseball fans in Torreon and Gomez Palacio, who've endured some hardships of their own over the years, particularly the last one.

Consider that teams representing the Laguna region have not won a Mexican League pennant since 1950, when Union Laguna beat out the Jalisco Charros for the flag.  Since then, Laguna has copped just one division crown (in 1990) while owners, managers and players have come and gone.  One thing that remains from that 1950 championship is Estadio Revolucion, a 12,000-seat ballpark with an impressive neoclassical entryway that was completed in 1932.  While some renovations were done before the 2003 season, Estadio Revolucion looks much the same as it did in a year when Babe Ruth was "calling" his homer at Wrigley Field and Mickey Mantle was turning one year old.

With that as a backdrop, Laguna fans saw their Vaqueros make an unexpected run for a Mexican League playoff berth under first-year manager Ramon Orantes last summer, only to see star first baseman Ricky Alvarez traded to Yucatan as part of a seven-player deal in late June.  Alvarez was batting .330 with 13 homers and a MXL-leading 75 RBIs in 66 games at the time, and his departure left both a huge hole in the Vaqueros lineup and tremendous unrest among the Laguna faithful.  The team plunged out of contention while attendance at home games plummeted as many fans stayed home as part of an unofficial boycott.  The Vaqueros are owned by the same Arellano brothers who coincidentally also own the Leones in Merida, beneficiaries of the one-sided Alvarez deal and confirmed over the winter that, indeed, they are more focused on success in Yucatan than Laguna.

The Arellanos (brother Erick runs the Torreon team while Jose Juan operates the Merida squad) spent the winter trying to sell the Vaqueros after it had been speculated in the past that they may seek to move the franchise to their hometown Mazatlan, but found no takers.  Thus, faced with an unhappy fan base and a team regarded as Yucatan's "farm team" the way the old Kansas City A's were to the Yankees, the Arellanos did what any logically-thinking owners would do to turn things around: They changed the team name.

The Union Laguna Vaqueros are now the Union Laguna Algodoneros (loosely translated to "Cotton Growers").  The nickname was used by the Mexican Pacific League's former Guasave team, still used by San Luis Rio Colorado's North Mexican League club and dates to the name of a Laguna franchise started in 1970 as part of the LMB's on-again, off-again presence in the region of 1.2 million residents.

Whether fans will respond to the new name when the team wearing it is the same one that missed the playoffs (albeit with a winning 60-49 record under Orantes).  Laguna did finish sixth on the MXL attendance table with an average of 4,396 in 2017, but the then-Vaqueros had been averaging over 5,000 per opening prior to the Alvarez trade and those missing fans will have to be enticed back to the Algodoneros' aging ballpark.  A name change may not be enough.